Smith: No need for more dough for Lydia Ko

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 12/04/2014

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OPINION: New Zealand Golf's application for a bigger government handout for Lydia Ko the pro should spark a serious debate about state funding for sport.

Ko was paid $185,000 by High Performance Sport New Zealand in 2013, when she was still an amateur and spurned $1.8 million in prizemoney.

But NZG is applying for $208,000 this year even though Ko is now a pro, has already earned $280,000 in winnings, has bought a house in Florida and, according to sports marketing experts, stands to pocket multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals.

NZG chief executive Dean Murphy insists Ko will become self-sufficient at some stage, but "currently, that's not the case". They want to make sure she gets top-notch coaching, physiotherapy and mental skills training to win a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Multisport millionaire Sonny Bill Williams could be going to the Rio Olympics, too, in the New Zealand sevens team. Should he be paid from the public purse?

Shouldn't the sports funding system be run on similar lines to the original intent of the New Zealand welfare state? Shouldn't it be a hand up, not a handout?

Give athletes an opportunity to get to the top, but once they're standing on their own two feet and earning big salaries, prizemoney payouts and sponsorship deals, divert the dough to someone who really needs it.

Lydia Ko clearly doesn't.

But it would be unfair to scapegoat the 16-year-old golf phenomenon. She's not the only sportsperson doing quite nicely thank you very much from the HPSNZ funding system.

Olympic, Paralympic and world championship winners get $60,000 a year in performance enhancement grants (Pegs). No-one would begrudge them that, but it means double Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams still gets state funding even though she's probably pulling in plenty from prizemoney on the world athletics circuit and from sponsorship.

Would it not be better to divert her Pegs income to up-and-comers like shot putter Tom Walsh and middle distance runner Angie Smit?

The more marketable athletes can make more than their Pegs grant from commercial deals - and good on them.

Yet, HPSNZ's funding system is hardly a level playing field. Noted Timaru speed skating coach Bill Begg has highlighted the anomaly that three-time world champion skater Peter Michael receives no HPSNZ funding yet former in-line skater Shane Dobbin, who has switched to ice skating and finished seventh at the Winter Olympics, gets $50,000 in annual grants.

The difference? Ice skating is an Olympic sport and the star-kissing HPSNZ gets all gooey at a glimpse of the Olympic rings.

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Plenty of dedicated, high-performing Kiwi sportspeople are selling chook raffles, running casino nights and hitting up gaming charity funders, family and friends in a bid to climb the slippery slope of success.

Do they have a right to get toey about high-earning professionals receiving state support when HPSNZ has only $62 million a year to dole out? Too right.

Where does the buck stop? New Zealand probably gets more international exposure from Winston Reid in the English Premier League, Steven Adams in basketball's NBA and Scott Dixon on the IndyCar motor racing circuit than from the failed America's Cup campaign.

Should they, the All Blacks, the Black Caps or pro footballers and rugby league players, get a slice of the state pie too? Clearly not.

Begg suggested that HPSNZ only fund sportspeople earning less than $100,000 a year. The concept has merit, although the threshold may be too low for some sports and athletes with big infrastructure and travel bills.

Perhaps it's time to cut off Pegs payments to sportspeople earning more than $200,000 from all sources, yet continue to pay them a generous, one-off bonus for Olympic and world championship gold medals.

Every other form of state benefit - pension apart - is subject to rigorous means testing. Should sport be any different?

- The Press

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